Tag Archives: social justice

Allyship in Professional Settings

Written in the Covid-stricken USA during the late July part of the 2020 BLack Lives Matter protests.

I was hired in March for a temporary position without benefits for an employer where I know I will not be able to get a permanent position. This gives me some freedom to perform acts of allyship without fear of losing my job. Any negative consequences of stepping up for others will be minimal in the long run. Given the circumstances, it is worth it to me to risk burning a few bridges if it leaves ash behind that others can turn into soap to use to clean up this mess. And, it is a mess.

Racism, transphobia, ableism, and more. Just like the rest of the USA, our workplace has issues. Our leadership, however, has been outspoken about wishing to correct internal issues of racism. I leveraged that to begin my allyship campaign at my new, temporary workplace. This article describes a portion of what I have done so far in the hopes that others will be able to glean ideas from it.

First, back in June after the Black Lives Matter protests hit a new nationwide height after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, a member of senior management cancelled a weekly casual Zoom meeting and replaced it with one intended to address antiracism. Being someone who is accustomed to discussions on race, I entered the call prepared to listen and learn. Instead, I found myself stifling a series of would-be faceplams on camera and acting primarily out of allyship rather than from a place of learning.

In summary, the meeting was a disaster. The interesting thing about it, though, is that the person who lead it probably left feeling like it was a success. I will skip past a lot of the details for timeliness for you my dear reader, but I don’t think this senior management person noticed that I – not the manager – was the one providing facilitation. I was the one who noticed that white people were talking over each other so fast that even they couldn’t get a word in edge wise, much less a person of color trying to work up the courage to say something in a hostile environment. I was the one who noticed that it was a hostile environment, not the manager. I – the temp who had been there for 3 months – was the one who said things like “Everyone please hold on, [person’s name] was trying to talk. I think your mic is off,” and otherwise creating space for voices of color to be heard amidst the white clamor. A caucophony, if you will excuse the pun.

Almost no voices of color spoke up, and those who did quickly stopped contributing when they saw how the meeting was going. None of the management called people to task for expressing racism. And, there was a lot of expression of racism; the people who were expressing it just did not recognize it for what it was. I don’t know whether the senior management present failed to recognize it or failed to act despite recognizing it, but either way it functioned to sanction and thereby galvanize the racism, regardless of intent. The black faces on the screen sat flat-flipped and silent for the majority of the meeting, only briefly going wide-eyed at the horrible things various white people said before carefully schooling their faces back to cold professionalism. That silence said more to me about the problems with race in my department than anything that the white people rambled on about for the hourlong meeting. The one thing that all of the different black people in the meeting who spoke all said – the thing they were clearly and unambiguously unanimous about despite only barely speaking at all – was that they wanted more of these discussions to happen. This was a start, and only a start, as far as they were concerned. Personally I found that take generous considering how badly that start went, but I kept my mouth shut.

At the end of the meeting, the senior manager asked me to send an email with the books I had recommended during the meeting. The manager was going to send them out to everyone. If that happened, I never got the email.

I thought about how that first antiracism meeting went badly due to the fact that it was lead by someone unqualified to do so. I decided I needed to say something to the senior manager who lead it. Clearly someone needed to, and most or all of the black people there were obviously not comfortable doing so. I wondered whether I should offer to pass on information anonymously, but none of the black people in my department are on my team and I am so new that they have no reason to trust me any more than they do anyone else. I ultimately sent this to the senior manager in the body of an email:

“I would recommend creating an anonymous way for anyone who wants to give you feedback to do so. I imagine this would make anyone of any given minority you aren’t a part of feel more comfortable bringing up issues in the department and criticisms about your handling of related topics.”

The response I got was disheartening. I won’t quote it directly here for privacy reasons, but the senior manager essentially said that anonymous surveys are not offered because they do not allow the senior manager to address the individual. The message also expressed that anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable going to the senior manager directly can go through someone else they do trust. I thought about how I had only been there for 3 months so it was silly to think I would be able to trust someone else enough for something like that. I thought about the silent faces and didn’t think it was reasonable to expect any of them to trust someone else like that either.

The next week’s casual Zoom meeting came, and I had not yet heard anything about another antiracism meeting even though it had been asked for by several people of color, both black and nonblack. So, when the senior manager asked for questions at the end of the casual Zoom meeting, I asked, “I was just wondering when our next antiracism discussion was going to happen.” The senior management expressed surprise that people wanted to talk about it more, then decided to schedule one for the following week. That’s how invisible people who aren’t white are in a working environment with white leadership. This is why we white people need to listen to our black and brown coworkers and reinforce heir voices with our own. I then carefully suggested, “I think if we could have some clearer goals for that meeting it might be a bit more useful.” The senior manager smiled and promised clarity.

Leading up to the second antiracism conversation, I considered the fact that this senior manager should probably not be the person who runs these antiracism talks. These kinds of conversations have a lot of different goals they can encompass, and each one needs something different. For example, if we want to give black employees a place to air their grievances with the company, the expectations and ground rules are going to be a lot different than if we want to systematically go through our policies and look at what might need to change. The first meeting didn’t have any clarity over what kind of meeting it would be, and that is part of why it was unproductive. I sent another email:

I am CCing [my direct supervisor] and [the relevant middle manager] because I’m not entirely certain who the right person is to send this to. I believe that the following are important goals for our antiracism talks:

  • Creating a learning environment about race, racism, and antriacism, especially for white people.
  • Working together to recognize and dismantle racism within ourselves, especially white people.
  • Creating space for people who aren’t white to voice grievances about the racism in our department.
  • Working together to recognize and dismantle the systems of oppression present within our department.

I don’t think we can do all of those things at the same time both because it’s too much all at once and because several of them are contradictory in terms of responsible ground rules. Each one is also big enough that it would make sense to pick just one at a time for each of these meetings. It is my hope that clear goals such as those above will make the next antiracism meeting a bit more productive.

That is why I asked for clear goals to be set for our next antiracism meeting. I realized after the Zoom meeting ended that my request was itself ironically unclear, so that is why I am sending this email with additional context.

I also think it would be a good idea for whoever leads these antiracism meetings to be someone who has experience doing so.

The senior manager’s response started with thanks and went on to inform me about a Zoom event happening the following week put on by an existing inclusion and diversity group for the entire department. According to the email, the antiracism talks for our part of the department were to be put on hiatus until after the bigger event, that way it could be used to inform policy and tactics moving forward.

The contrast between the bigger event and the earlier Zoom meeting was utterly stark. It was well-organized, with speakers prepared to speak on relevant topics in useful ways. I did not learn anything because they were speaking to those who are just beginning to learn about race and racism, but it was heartening that they were so prepared and the questions people asked showed that they were learning a lot. Best of all, they prospered concrete steps for each group in the department to utilize.

Fast forward to late July, and there was another large department Zoom meeting. This one was designed for people to ask questions about anything, so a lot of them were about things like working from home and salaries. However, this was also the first time since I started working here that I saw an anonymous feature in use. In addition to Zoom’s chat window, there was an anonymous question feature that displayed people’s anonymous questions in a secondary chat for everyone to see. There was also a thumbs up feature, and questions with more “thumbs up” responses got boosted further towards the top of the list.

At the top with the most thumbs up was the question: “When can we expect to see a coherent and transparent plan to address the rampant racism and transphobia in [our departement]?” There were also a slew of other questions, each with their own collection of thumbs up, that made it very clear that there are several people who are very unhappy with the working environment due to these axes of oppression. For context: these questions got as many or more thumbs up reactions as the questions that didn’t have anything to do with social equity.

The senior-senior management team’s response to these questions? Waving it away, denial of there actually being issues, and an admission of not having any plan to make a plan. Somehow the same managers who said things like, “Without more data we can’t really be sure these things are happening” also said things like “If someone really thinks this is happening, they are welcome to come talk to me privately about it.” No one is going to have enough trust left to talk to a manger privately about a serious issue after that manager makes it clear they don’t and won’t be taking it seriously.

One of the managers was new and spent very little time speaking except during introductions, as new people often like to listen more than speak. This was the new manager’s first big meeting. This manager is also black and went from smiling the smile of a giddy new-hire excited to work their new job to the same careful mask worn by the other black people in that first awful antiracism meeting in June.

Yesterday, the senior manager for our part of the department (the same one who had run that first antiracism meeting back in June) had a follow up meeting with us. The email invitation said it would be to discuss working from home, transitioning back to working in person, or anything else from the big meeting that people felt like discussing. This senior manager opened the Zoom meeting with something along the lines of, “This session is for you, does anyone have any questions?”

After a long pause and some chuckling comments about no one wanting to speak up, a middle manager decided to go first. “I found it very informative just how strongly people are feeling about their working environment right now,” the middle manager said carefully. I wondered whether this referred to all the people who hate working from home while their kids were also home, or to all the people who were feeling marginalized because of race or gender.

The senior manager decided it meant the first one and went on for about 5 minutes about working from home, the stressors involved in that, transitioning back to the office, and what that might entail. The middle manager politely waited for the senior manager to finish talking and then clarified: “I was referring more to the people who were expressing concerns about racism, and disparity in pay, and things like that.”

The senior manager was probably embarrassed, and awkwardly repeatedly gave assurances that we can talk about that if it is what people wanted to do. Awkward chuckles and comments came from both managers, and then I asked if I could ask a question. The senior manager welcomed it warmly.

“It seems like a lot of the questions to that end, whether it was racism or transphobia, got rather hand wavy answers. I saw a question on the anonymous chat that was up there towards the top of the list, and I’d like to ask it here: When can we expect a coherent and transparent plan for addressing these things?”

That was enough to get the ball rolling. I was able to sit back and listen, learn a little, and watch as the team finally began to start moving towards taking real action instead of just talking about how important it is to take action.

At some point the conversation moved to trying to adjust hiring practices to ensure a wider diversity in hiring. During this, the senior manager said something about trying to get the gender balance to be 50-50, and a few other transphobic/binarist remarks. I finally spoke up again and asked, “[Senior manger], are you open to some feedback?” The senior manager said yes, so in front of all 20 or so people who work under this senior manger, I quoted the manager’s own words a few times and said, “I would like to remind you that there are more than two genders, so if you really do want this to be ‘an inclusive and welcoming place,’ you might want to consider adjusting your language. It can never be ’50-50′ if it is actually inclusive.”

The senior manager responded by thanking me for the feedback and expressing an intention to do better moving forward. A coworker privately messaged me emojis of clapping hands and called me courageous, saying, “I have never seen someone call [senior manager] out like that!

The next time I spoke up, I wrote out what I had to say ahead of time for the sake of getting through it all despite nerves. In fact, I had written this up before the meeting even started specifically because it needed to be said, and of all my coworkers, I risk the least by speaking up. I put it on a Notepad window directly below my camera and made the window super narrow to minimize eye movement from reading. Our senior manager is so verbose that I was able to edit it to match the nuances of the context of the moment I chose to speak up prior to unmuting my mic. That moment came when the senior manager said something which had been said so many times before: “I would hope anyone who has a concern would feel comfortable talking to me directly.”

I asked to speak to that point, and then said this (which I have done my best to edit to match the words that I ended up actually saying):

“I think it’s important to talk about the intricacies of how the power dynamics involved in leadership roles preclude people from speaking up. By their very nature, the kinds of issues that marginalize people also break down the trust that is necessary to speak up about those issues. Since we know that those issues exist, and we know that we have serious problems in [our department] with racism and transphobia and perhaps other axes of oppression as well, it makes sense to be sensitive to the fact that people on the harmed ends of these spectrums risk a lot when speaking up. Whether it’s a promotion or the chance for a temp like me to get a permanent position or whatever it is, marginalized people are unlikely to be without fear of being passed over for these things or otherwise treated poorly for speaking up. I know I mentioned to you before that I believe it is important to have an anonymous feedback mechanism. This is why. Asking people to trust a leader enough to speak to them directly when they are a leader in a department that marginalizes those people doesn’t make much sense in light of these dynamics, regardless of good intentions. Regardless of your very clear and obvious good intentions.”

I muted my mic again. The conversation immediately progressed to how to go about creating anonymous feedback systems with multiple active participants already on board with the idea. Concerns were raised about how to ensure that it is truly anonymous, considering we are a department of IT people and that means we all know the data exists somewhere if you have to log in with your company login credentials to access the form. A very productive and efficient conversation ensued about the logistics of putting together something that people can actually trust.

The coworker who had messaged me privately before sent a private new message that said, “I would have expected the language you used to be used in an upper level seminar course on power dynamics and institutionalized gender discrimination.”

I talk to a lot of queer people in my spare time. It’s kind of like informal grad school lol,” I responded. Please note dear reader that I used the word “queer” knowing my coworker is about my age. Older LGBTQIA people are often still stung deeply when they hear that word so I do my best to avoid using it as a blanket word when speaking in groups.

In our private chat, this coworker – who has been there for many years – told me that it is very good for this department to be exposed to this language.

Meanwhile, the conversation on the Zoom meeting returned to hiring practices. People threw out some well-researched ideas that have been implemented by other organizations with great success, such wiping names from resumes and CVs before handing them to the hiring committee to remove bias from perceived race and gender, something which studies show happen even when people don’t think they are exhibiting this bias. Look up “unconscious bias in hiring” for more information.

The senior manager voiced support of all ideas that were discussed. It was the first meeting larger than my small immediate team that I have attended since I was hired in March that seemed to be productive in any capacity whatsoever, much less within this context. It would not have been productive if people had not decided to talk about racial inequity even though it is uncomfortable.

After the meeting ended, someone I have never met thanked me privately for speaking up, saying that it made the meeting purposeful and productive, and expressing fear that if they speak up, it risks too much, so they will not be doing so. Speaking up makes a difference for those who can’t. That is why I do it, and that is why I recommend you do it too.

The American Cishet’s Guide to Celebrating May 17th

What is May 17th all about? According to https://may17.org/about/, it’s this:

“The International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia was created in 2004 to draw the attention to the violence and discrimination experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexuals, transgender, intersex people and all other people with diverse sexual orientations, gender identities or expressions, and sex characteristics.”

With that in mind, here are some meaningful ways that you as a straight, cisgender, non-intersex American can honor May 17th and make a real difference:

1) We are disproportionately poor and homeless (especially our youth) due to discrimination in hiring, promotions, and housing, especially those who aren’t white and face that discrimination due to race as well. Message your queer, transgender, and intersex friend(s), ask if they are short on any necessities, and offer to provide them in honor of today.

2) Many basic rights are stripped away from us through deliberate discrimination in federal policy making. We rely on state laws to protect us from these federal assaults on our human rights. Here is a great interactive infographic from The Guardian for easily comparing state protections for some of the basic rights that are often denied due to discrimination around sexual orientation. Call or write a letter to your state legislature asking them to fill in any holes in rights in your state, or thanking them for the protections that are in place.

3) A LOT of violence against trans and nonbinary people happens in bathrooms. Transgender are frequently beaten, raped, and arrested just for trying to find a place to pee, so gender neutral public restrooms are necessary. Besides, these facilities are useful for people from cultures that have more than two genders, making your workplace more culturally inclusive. If you don’t have gender neutral restrooms at your place of work, email your supervisors or HR department and ask them to install them now during the pandemic closures before reopening. This can often be as simple as changing signs.

4) Our representatives don’t know what we want unless we tell them. With powerful lobbyists filling their ears, it is particularly important for all of us to contact them. Call and/or write to your federal representatives after looking at their track record. Either praise them for protecting LGBTQ rights so they keep doing it, or ask them to start.

5) If you do not know who Brett Kavanaugh is, please look him up and read about his terrifying background from before President Trump appointed him. Impeaching Kavanaugh protects all Americans, not just the gay ones. Call and/or write to your federal House representatives and ask them to begin impeachment proceedings for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. Yes, they can do that.

6) Educate yourself about intersex people. Here is an article that explains some of the most common false myths associated with intersex people. Here is one that talks about the abuse intersex children frequently experience in the form of unnecessary genital surgeries, written with a focus on the cultural context surrounding that. Then, call and/or write to your state representatives and ask them to ban genital surgeries on healthy intersex infants and toddlers.

Accountability and Compassion

I live in a diverse community in the USA. Even people of similar demographics on paper often disagree with each other on fundamental aspects of how to do things that many people seem to believe “just go without saying.” One of the areas where I see a significant amount of disagreement is the topic of accountability.

Most of the people I know agree that our culture is broken and needs some fixing. Our problems include things like the ongoing genocide of various indigenous peoples through violations of treaties and the kidnapping, murdering, and forced sterilization of their women; sexism driving down the wages of women, especially women who aren’t white; transphobia mixing with racism to create the current crisis situation for transgender women of color who are being murdered at an astonishing rate; and so on. Few people actually want any of this, even the subset of Republicans who are able to recognize that these things are happening. It’s how to stop it that we disagree about.

The kind of thinking that leads to genocide, hate-fueled murder, corrective rape, and so on typically comes from a place of deep-rooted misconceptions. Thus, many people approach the issue with education. By educating the masses as to the realities of people who don’t usually get the spotlight, the thought goes, we can prune away the underlying thinking that leads to such heinous acts. I am all for that, which is part of why I write this blog. I also don’t think education alone can solve this. So, what is another piece of the puzzle? In my opinion, compassionate accountability is one of the other required pieces. Combining education with fostering a culture of compassion rooted in accountability is vital for making the changes we need to make.

What does that look like?

Education only works as a strategy to improve our culture when we hold ourselves and each other accountable to the content of that education. In this sense, accountability ranges in scale from the self to international relations, and everything in between. It’s choosing to make a change in how you think after learning new information, and making amends for any harm you may have done while erroneously believing something different before. It’s a parent teaching a child how to respect others’ consent and how to express their boundaries with words. It’s men stopping each other from making jokes about rape and helping each other learn how to identify and express their emotions, needs, and boundaries. It’s a supervisor learning what a transgender employee’s pronouns are, and reinforcing their use with the rest of the team by using them in front of the employee’s coworkers (after checking to be sure that is what the transgender employee wants). It’s a college student talking to a professor after class to discuss the latent racism in the lecture slides to help the professor learn how to do better. It’s writing a petition or contacting key diplomats to get your state to outlaw the gay/trans panic defense. It’s the British employment tribunal refusing to allow Forstater to use the argument of “protected beliefs” to enable her harassment of transgender people. It’s Autumn Peltier becoming a water protector and addressing leaders all over the world (including the UN) to correct water pollution of many communities’ water. It’s Greta Thunberg telling the United Nations they need to stop talking about climate change and start taking action at the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit.

If you watch the video above, you will hear Greta say, “…because if you really understood the situation, and still kept on failing to act, then you would be evil, and that I refuse to believe.” This, to me, is where compassion and accountability intersect on a fundamental level. There is compassion in the simple assumption that people want to be and think and act in better ways when their thoughts and actions are harmful to others, if only they knew how to be and do better. The act of holding someone or some group accountable is thus an act of compassion. The desire to do better by others and the action of making repairs when held accountable are also forms of compassion. Thus, when accountability is properly applied in good faith and responded to in kind, it becomes an act of compassion by and for all parties involved, even when it doesn’t feel very fun.

The ability of the offending party to recognize this compassion on the part of the person holding them accountable is often key to the success of accountability endeavors. Without that recognition, it is easy for people to shut down and tune out. It is my hope that this article will help people both learn to have that recognition, and build a toolkit to intentionally help others recognize it when holding others accountable. To that end, I have created the framework outlined below of a partial model of accountability styles.

Accountability Styles

What exactly accountability looks like can vary dramatically. And, like anything else that can be a positive tool, it can become a toxic influence if utilized in toxic ways. How we go about accountability matters, and this is another place where a lot of people seem to disagree about the best way forward. In response to this, I suggest that perhaps just like affection and apology languages, different people have different needs and expectations surrounding accountability and thus have different accountability languages. Understanding this can help us all retain the compassion that accountability requires in order to be a successful tool. So, let’s look at some of the different axes of accountability languages to see what happens when people with differing styles interact in order to help us surmount the tension it can cause and focus on positive growth.

Transparency: Public Vs. Private

Many acts of holding someone accountable happen on social media. From stormy comments sections to lengthy private message conversations, these things often lead to hurt feelings, blocking, and divided communities. One element of why involves a difference in preference for public versus private accountability. Let’s look at what happens when two people with differing styles in this respect find themselves in an accountability situation:

I was in a now-defunct Facebook group for a while which I will call “Punamory” for the sake of this article because everyone in it was polyamorous and very good at puns. Something happened where a white member with a public accountability style needed to be held accountable for an act of accidental racism. The moderator of color who handled it had a private accountability style. The moderator wished to be respectfully firm, and therefore messaged the offending party privately out of respect for the feelings of the white offending member and to prevent distraction from others getting involved. The offending member who received the message felt attacked and unsafe despite the respectful nature of the language used, because the conversation was held privately where no one else could witness it. This member responded by creating an accountability thread in the group to seek feedback from and offer apologies to the community with transparent accountability. The moderator who had messaged the offending member privately was taken aback by this, felt disrespected that the conversation was moved to a public setting, and expressed this in the comments. The member who made the accountability post then expressed that getting the message privately didn’t strike them as true accountability; to them, not having a public platform upon which to apologize for public wrong-doing did not allow them to make repairs and thus was not true accountability. Was one of them right and the other wrong? Perhaps that is the wrong question. This was a clash of two very different sets of expectations combined with a situation where neither individual worked towards understanding the other’s accountability style before taking offense and acting accordingly. In response, the admin team created a standard policy for how these things would be handled, that way everyone would know what to expect.

Some people prefer to be held accountable privately. Others publicly. Still others say that the situation matters. For example, for many people, leadership has no right to privacy in accountability due to values of transparency while other matters may be more private. The bottom line though, is to be aware that this is one axis along which people vary in accountability style.

In addition to simple personal preference, this axis can also be dramatically influenced by context surrounding various marginalized populations. For example, misgendering a transgender person is an act of verbal violence. Pulling someone aside to privately let them know that they need to use the right pronouns can be useful, but people tend to assume that if a trans person doesn’t speak up, they do not mind what was said about them. Thus, the transparency of public accountability can go a lot further towards protecting and supporting trans people than private accountability, so a transgender person with a private accountability style may switch to using public accountability under these circumstances.

Here is a handy chart you can use to help yourself understand your own style on this axis. If you are still new to self-analysis, you can use these like checkboxes. On each row, mark off whichever box best fits your style for that context. For more advanced players, you can up the game level by working to think of example situations until you can fill all 6 boxes with scenarios that meet your personal preferences. (For example, your first row might say something like, “when holding myself accountable I like to be public about it when it affects my whole community but private about it when it only affects one or two people.”) Finally, when you are done using this tool to consider yourself, try to think of why someone else might prefer the opposite of whatever you have checked off or written down to help develop your ability to recognize others’ accountability styles.

This is a tool for analyzing one's own Public vs Private axis of accountability styles.  Image description: On a blue background, there is a chart with six cells filled with beige. The two columns are labeled "Public" and "Private" from left to right. From top to bottom, the three rows are labeled, "When I hold myself accountable," "When others hold me accountable," and "When I hold others accountable."
Image description: On a blue background, there is a chart with six cells filled with beige. The two columns are labeled “Public” and “Private” from left to right. From top to bottom, the three rows are labeled, “When I hold myself accountable,” “When others hold me accountable,” and “When I hold others accountable.”

Approach: Call-In Vs. Call-Out

For the purposes of this article, “calling out” refers to pointing out that something was wrong and issuing a challenge to correct it, where “calling in” typically utilizes a greater investment of time and emotional labor and may include education about the given topic and/or emotional support of the person who did wrong. Some people use these words this way. Others use these words the way I have used “private vs public” above. It is important to note that these words are used differently in different communities! Next time the great debate of “call in vs call out” comes up, I recommend starting by asking which way others are using those words to ensure that you are having the same conversation as one another.

Anyway, let’s see what happens when people with differing accountability styles on this style axis find themselves in an accountability scenario:

A friend of mine has a call-out style, and is accustomed to just telling people what needs to change and expecting them to do it. My friend is also accustomed to and appreciative of people informing my friend of what needs to change, and then goes about correcting it whenever called out on something. An ex roommate of mine has a call-in style. This roommate is accustomed to spending time helping people understand why something needs to change, and prefers others to do the same.

Back when we were still living together, my friend tracked some dirt into our living room. My roommate went directly into call-in mode, starting with an explanation for why we don’t like dirty floors out of respect for my friend’s feelings. My friend became agitated and went directly into call-out mode. “If you were upset about the footprints, you should have just said so,” my friend said with a polite tone of voice. My roommate was taken aback by what appeared to my roommate to be sudden aggression in response to a respectful attitude. Both of them were doing what they considered to be polite, but neither one of them understood that. If I hadn’t stepped in, it would have rapidly devolved from there.

As with the above example about public versus private accountability styles, we see here in this example that the people involved jumped directly to taking offense without taking the time to notice or understand differences in accountability styles.

Also as above, this is another axis which can be influenced by the context of axes of power and oppression. Call-out accountability places the onus on the person who did wrong to take the time to understand why and come up with solutions. Call-in accountability shares that burden between both parties. Black Americans often spend a huge amount of energy every day navigating a society that is filled to the brim with racism. They vary dramatically between individuals on all axes of accountability styles, but it’s also very common for black people in the USA to simply be too exhausted to explain the same things yet again, especially when there are a plethora of black writers, bloggers, vloggers, and Tweeters who have filled libraries and the internet with all the explanations someone who isn’t black needs to self-educate. So, a black person who generally has a call-in accountability style may opt for a call-out method sometimes (or always) when it comes to racism, thereby shifting the burden of education to the offending party. This is also easier to do with racism against black Americans than other mistakes which harm other marginalized groups simply because there are so many black authors writing about race that it is typically easy to Google for answers and find accurate information.

Here is a fresh copy of the tool I provided above, relabeled for this axis. Use the same two-step process as above: First, use this to think about yourself. Then, use this as a guide to consider reasons why someone else might have an opposite stance from yours on how to handle these things even in the same context.

This is a tool for analyzing one's own Call-In vs Call-Out axis of accountability styles. Image description: On a blue background, there is a chart with six cells filled with green. The two columns are labeled "Call-In" and "Call-Out" from left to right. From top to bottom, the three rows are labeled, "When I hold myself accountable," "When others hold me accountable," and "When I hold others accountable."
Image description: On a blue background, there is a chart with six cells filled with green. The two columns are labeled “Call-In” and “Call-Out” from left to right. From top to bottom, the three rows are labeled, “When I hold myself accountable,” “When others hold me accountable,” and “When I hold others accountable.”

Tone: Niceness Vs Rawness

This axis has to do with tone of voice, wording, and so on. It’s the difference between speaking with a harsh tone or controlling one’s voice, the difference between carefully selecting wording for the sake of the other person’s feelings and letting your truth come into the light regardless of its ugliness. In that sense, this axis is actually a combination of a handful of communication styles bunched together for this article. Like the other axes, many people aren’t completely at one end or the other of this spectrum and some people find a balance between these aspects. It doesn’t have to be either/or.

Someone with a predominantly niceness tone style will likely refer to their own style as “being kind” or “being polite,” and may refer to someone with a rawness tone style as “rude,” or “mean.” Someone with a predominantly rawness tone style will likely refer to their own style as “being direct,” or “being honest,” and may refer to someone with a niceness style as “rude” or “manipulative” or “passive aggressive.” Both may even refer to their own styles as “wholesome” and become flabbergasted by the concept of that word referring to the other style on this axis.

Let’s see what happens when two people from different ends of this axis are in the same situation:

I once had a partner and a roommate who had trouble getting along because of this axis. My partner had a niceness style, while my roommate had a rawness style. My roommate was unhappy with the frequency of my partner staying over, and expressed to my partner that it was stressful to have my partner spend so much time at the house without paying for rent or utilities. My roomamte made no attempt to keep the frustration out of the tone of voice used in the conversation. My partner was not offended by my roommate’s boundaries, but by how they were expressed. “Wow. You don’t have to be mean about it,” my partner said. This, of course, confused my roommate who was operating under the assumption that people would like to know the in-depth truth of a situation when they are being asked to change what they are doing. “What did I say that was mean?” my roommate asked in honest confusion. This ticked off my partner more, because it was inconceivable to my partner that my roommate could possibly think that was a polite way to handle the conversation. I stepped in and clarified what was going on before it could escalate any farther. Over time, my partner became increasingly elaborate in attempts to become nicer and nicer to appease my roommate, who found this to be increasingly manipulative. “Why can’t your partner just be honest with me?” my roommate said to me once, within a week of my partner saying, “it doesn’t matter how nice I am, it’s never good enough for [your roommate]!” These are, as above, examples of people jumping to offense due to a failure to recognize much less reconcile differences of style and expectations. In this case, the second part is also an example of complimentary schismogenesis, a term first applied to interpersonal linguistics by Professor of Linguistics Deborah Tanen.

As with the other axes of accountability styles, the context of culture and axes of power can dramatically influence how someone decides to handle something in terms of niceness versus rawness. Deaf culture in the USA is a great example of a subculture that handles things very differently from mainstream culture. Where mainstream culture tends to prefer niceness, Deaf culture tends to prefer rawness. It is common to directly and bluntly refer to people’s body shapes and sizes in ASL (American Sign Language), where that would be considered rude by many English-speakers in the same country. Because directness permeates communication in Deaf culture, rawness can also dominate accountability styles.

The exhaustion I touched on before when discussing call-in versus call-out can also impacts this axis. When people who are marginalized become weary of educating so many people about their own existence so very frequently, they often switch to rawness even if niceness is their standard mode. Sometimes it’s actually an indication that someone finally feels safe enough to open up. Other times this is an attempt to be heard after feeling like no one is taking them seriously. Sometimes it is simply all a person can handle doing after running out of energy for niceness. After all, bridging communication gaps takes work, and a lot of people don’t even try to bridge the gap when talking with marginalized people. The constant expectation to meet the mainstream person on the mainstream person’s terms without any effort from that person to mutually aid in bridging the gap is harmful and exhausting. This is where the concept of tone policing comes in. If you aren’t familiar with it, definitely read the comic at the link.

Here is the same tool as above, relabeled for this topic. Use it the same way as before. First, either check off the boxes that apply to your style or strive to fill each box with a scenario where your style would fit. Then, go back through and come up with reasons why someone else might prefer something opposite.

This is a tool for analyzing one's own Niceness vs Rawness axis of accountability styles. Image description: On a blue background, there is a chart with six cells filled with green. The two columns are labeled "Niceness" and "Rawness" from left to right. From top to bottom, the three rows are labeled, "When I hold myself accountable," "When others hold me accountable," and "When I hold others accountable."
Image description: On a blue background, there is a chart with six cells filled with green. The two columns are labeled “Niceness” and “Rawness” from left to right. From top to bottom, the three rows are labeled, “When I hold myself accountable,” “When others hold me accountable,” and “When I hold others accountable.”

Developing Compassionate Accountability

What exactly does compassionate accountability look like? Unfortunately, there is no blanket answer. No one way of doing accountability will always be right or wrong. To develop compassionate accountability in ourselves and our communities, it is necessary to learn what our own accountability style is so that we can communicate it to others. Learning to communicate about accountability styles also allows us to intentionally set up community-wide accountability norms so that everyone knows what to expect, thereby preventing miscommunication and unnecessary hurt feelings. In addition to learning to recognize and communicate our own personal accountability styles, it is equally necessary to learn to recognize others’ styles. This allows us to appreciate the compassion hidden within others’ personal accountability styles and work towards bridging miscommunication gaps in lieu of allowing those gaps to make already tense situations even worse.

Using the three axes described above to create an admittedly incomplete model of accountability styles, there are at least eight distinct styles. They are listed in this chart, which also has columns for each of the contexts used in earlier exercises. You can use this just like the previous ones. First, either check off boxes that match your style for each context or fill in as many boxes as you can with scenarios where you would utilize that style. Then, go back through everything that matches your style and come up with reasons why someone else might prefer to do it differently from you. Building compassionate accountability requires us to recognize others’ methods as valid. Use this tool to help you do that.

Image description: This is a chart with eight blank rows labeled for each combination of variables from the axes outlined in this article, and with three columns labeled for each of the contexts from previous thought tools in this article. From left to right, they are labeled "When I hold myself accountable," "When others hold me accountable," and "When I hold others accountable." From top to bottom, the styles  are labeled as "Public Call-In Nice," "Public Call-In Raw," "Public Call-Out Nice," "Public Call-Out Raw,"  "Private Call-In Nice," "Private Call-In Raw," "Private Call-Out Nice," and "Private Call-Out Raw."
Image description: This is a chart with eight blank rows labeled for each combination of variables from the axes outlined in this article, and with three columns labeled for each of the contexts from previous thought tools in this article. From left to right, they are labeled “When I hold myself accountable,” “When others hold me accountable,” and “When I hold others accountable.” From top to bottom, the styles are labeled as “Public Call-In Nice,” “Public Call-In Raw,” “Public Call-Out Nice,” “Public Call-Out Raw,” “Private Call-In Nice,” “Private Call-In Raw,” “Private Call-Out Nice,” and “Private Call-Out Raw.”

The pattern here of people taking offense without recognizing simple style differences is a fairly common feature of human miscommunication. It is not isolated to accountability styles. For further reading on that and related phenomenons, check your library for books about sociolinguistics.

Activism 101

If you can tell something needs to change, and you are ready to help make that happen, but you feel lost about what to do and where to start, then this post is for you. There are several key components to activism. I am going to discuss four of them. Each one is really just a different form of accountability, and you never stop doing any of them.

1. Self-Education

This is the root of everything. You cannot make a difference at all if you do not know what is wrong or how to fix it. Your choice to read this means you have already started engaging in self-education. Good job!

There are lots of different issues out there and each one has its own nuances. There are lots of things that are similar for activism for all minorities, but there are also key differences in how we go about supporting each minority. Non-visible minorities (such as gay people or transgender people who are passing as not-transgender or Muslims who do not look like stereotypical Muslims) face an entirely different set of obstacles than visible minorities (such as black people, or transgender people who are visibly transitioning their gender). Reading about all of these things will help you help them.

Gay people and tend to like to answer questions about being gay. Black people tend to resent answering questions about being black unless you are close friends with them so they know you are coming from a  genuinely supportive place, or they are working at an activist center and on the clock when you ask. Disabled people seem to have no trends regarding this that I have noticed. “Tend to” means not always; no single group of minorities holds some sort of blanket set of beliefs/needs/desires. That is probably one of the biggest keys to activism: Remember that a person who is a minority is a unique individual first and foremost. And regarding that question thing? Ask first if it is okay to ask questions. The burden of educating others is actually a super heavy one for minorities to bear. Never, ever assume that someone is okay with educating you. Instead, use things like blogs written by minorities, minority-specific museums, and centers designed for activism and education.

2. Peer Education

This is something that overlaps a bit with “holding others accountable.” I sincerely believe that most people do not want to be assholes. Most people want to be nice. That means that the vast majority of racism, homophobia, ableism, and so on is purely accidental. As you educate yourself, you will begin to see people doing these things all around you (and notice it in yourself as well). They will not even realize that they are doing it. Part of activism is calling people in (as opposed to calling them out), to let them know that what they are doing is hurting people. If you say “That is actually racist because X,” for example, someone who is already an educated activist will thank you and adjust, but most people will balk at the big scary R word and respond by saying they are not racist. That is why calling people in as opposed to out is, in my opinion, the most successful form of activism when we are talking about dealing with typical individuals on a typical day. “I know you do not want to hurt people, so I thought you would like to know that X is actually kind of mean,” for example, will be more likely to get people to listen to you.

3. Holding Yourself Accountable

Everybody has got a different idea of what it means to be an activist. A lot of people use call outs as their standard form. If someone calls you out, don not get defensive. Or if you do, just let that feeling rest inside you and listen anyway. Holding yourself accountable means listening to people who call you in or out, no matter whether you like the way they are doing it. If someone calls you in or out, take some time – however long it takes, really – to process it. Maybe even go search online for more information about it. Use it as an excuse to educate yourself. Then, make any necessary changes. This can be a long process, and that is okay. Keep with it. You might find more stuff in your self-education that allows you to hold yourself accountable to things before anyone calls you out on them. Every time you do that, it is a triumph because it means that is one less person who had to take on the burden of educating you.

Processing through self-accountability can be an extremely taxing process emotionally. It is important to find a support network for this. If you have close friends who are minorities, it can be okay sometimes to ask first if they’re okay processing this with you. Generally, though, that creates an undue burden on someone who is a minority. Find non-minority activist friends you can process your emotions with. Join activist groups to help you with self-accountability, self-education, and processing related emotions.

Remember: Every person who is a minority has a right to be utterly furious. They may express their anger when calling you in or out, or simply in general. Anger is one of the best triggers for defensiveness. Do not fall into that trap. Let a minority person’s anger elicit your compassion and introspection, and set any defensiveness aside where you can process through it later.

4. Holding Others Accountable

This is the hardest part of activism, and you cannot do it unless you have been doing the first and third parts. This can be educating peers as mentioned above, or fighting for policies/laws to change at work, in your city, in your state, and in your nation, and everything in between. But you will not know what changes to fight for unless you have been educating yourself, befriending minorities, and holding yourself accountable.

Putting It All Together

As you may have noticed, there are two general halves to activism: Internal activism within ourselves, and external activism for educating others and holding them accountable. The first one is the most important because the second one is meaningless without it.

Know that this is a lifelong process. You will make mistakes, and that is okay. You cannot be a genuine activist without risking getting it wrong sometimes because it is a learn-by-doing process. Be okay with mistakes. Own them, apologize, and then make your apology valid by changing your behavior accordingly.